The following is a chapter from my upcoming book, Vision and Voice for Girls, written for middle school-age girls.
Charlayne was a little girl who knew exactly who and what she wanted to be when she grew up. Never mind that she was a black girl in rural southern Georgia, where girls like her were expected to keep their hopes and dreams modest. In those days, black people were kept separate from whites, and doors to special privileges were kept locked away from "colored" people, as they were called then.
Never mind that. Charlayne just knew she was going to be a reporter like Brenda Starr, her hero in the comic books. Never mind that Brenda was a red-haired white girl. Never mind that most people, except her mother and grandmother, thought she didn't have a chance in the world of accomplishing that.
In her family, women traditionally found a way. Why, her grandmother had taught herself to read, and then she carefully read three newspapers every day! She read a black paper, Atlanta Daily World, and mainstream papers Atlanta Constitution and Atlanta Journal while 8-year-old Charlayne lay on the floor on her tummy, reading the comic pages.
Brenda was a girl in charge of her own life, who didn't let anything stop her, and she went from one adventure to another. Charlayne kept reading about Brenda's adventures. The little black girl just knew she could be like that too because she saw herself as a queen who deserved the best, and she was capable of achieving it. She wasn't about to let other people's ideas get in her way.
Later, after she did become a famous, award-winning, much-respected journalist, she would remember her mother's encouragement. "My mother knew instinctively that dreams propel ambition," she said.
Of course, reaching her goal wasn't easy for Charlayne. Well, it was OK when she was in high school working on the school newspaper. The trouble started later, when she went to enroll in the University of Georgia, a school only for white students, and she found the door slammed shut to her and to another black student who also wanted to enroll. Hamilton Holmes wanted to be a doctor, and he and Charlayne knew that this university was an excellent one.
In order to get that door open, she had to be braver than she had ever imagined, and to just keep pushing. She and Hamilton decided to take up the challenge and the offer of being Americans who lived in the home of the brave and land of the free, as they had heard in the song, America the Beautiful. They sued the university in 1959 and no matter what happened along the way, they stuck to their plan. Finally, three years later, they won the right to walk through that door and enroll as students.
During the summers of her university years studying journalism, she interned at the Louisville Courier-Journal, where she had a chance to write some news stories and to learn a lot about professionalism in the news business.
After graduation, always striving for excellence, Charlayne got a beginner's job at New Yorker magazine where she did secretarial work in the mornings, and wrote her own stories in the afternoon. At first she tried to write like the white journalists, but her friend Calvin Trillin (now a famous writer) talked to her, convincing her to write from a black perspective; her editor William Shawn accepted her stories, and her amazing world-spanning career had begun.
Today, Ms. Hunter-Gault lives in South Africa, still working as a journalist, where she interviewed another famous pioneer in opening racial doors. She knew Nelson Mandela, one of the world's heroes, and she interviewed him several times. In Athens, GA, at the University of Georgia, the Academic Building has been named the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building, and Charlayne has come full circle.
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